When Flying Requires a Shoehorn

At six feet, five inches, Tom is a big man and when flying, he likes the aisle. Lately, the airlines don’t seem to care.

He selected his preferred seat when booking online. However, when he arrived at the self-check-in kiosk, he had a middle seat. An airline employee told him his online selections “…was only a “seat request” and not a “seat selection” and did not have to be honored. “

What’s the deal? Why bother asking for a seat request if it’s going to be ignored? What tips and tactics can he use to insure his wide shoulders don’t rub up against two other people?

That’s what Tom wants to know, after the jump…

Tom writes:

“I went to Phoenix from DC (BWI Airport) to see friends this weekend. I booked my tix through Orbitz.

I was able to select my seat on my flight out during purchase, which was on US Air (service provided by America West. US Air recently bought out AW)

I was not allowed to select a seat for my return trip on AW (no affiliation to US Air was mentioned on my itinerary, unlike my outbound flight). I assume this was due to complications not yet worked out from to the merger.

I got to BWI just over an hour before my flight out. I checked in at the self-serve kiosk. My seat was not as selected, it was a ‘middle seat’ (I am 6’5 and have broad shoulders. My most comfortable ride in coach is in an aisle seat). I tried to change my seat only to find that there were only 3 open seats on the plane (all middles). When I inquired about my booked seat, I was told that my seat selection online was only a “seat request” and not a “seat selection” and did not have to be honored. So I sucked it up and sat in the crappy seat on the way out. My questions are: How did all the seats get taken?; Why was my seat selection not honored?; How in the world could all but 3 seats be unconfirmed a full hour before the flight?

On my flight back from PHX (on AW), I checked-in online roughly 18 hours in advance and printed my boarding pass. I was assigned a window seat, without an option to change it online. I was at the airport at PHX a full 2 hours before my scheduled flight. I went to the boarding gate and was informed that there were no aisle seats remaining. Again, how could there be no aisle seats unconfirmed a full 2 hours before the flight?

Can you (or a commenter) explain the seat assignment procedures and how to maneuver through them? Or am I just ignorant that people are far more proactive than me when booking a flight and confirming their seats. If that is the case, how do I become more proactive?

Many thanks in advance.”


Edit Your Comment

  1. TPIRman says:

    The first story is indeed weird. It sounds like merger issues. I have always seen that online disclaimer that it’s “just a request,” but I’ve rarely had trouble with online seat selection. (It has happened to m, though.) I always figured that disclaimer is there to account for situations where one booking system is not communicating fully with another (i.e., they need to cover their ass because of antiquated systems). Which is probably the situation here.

    The second one is less mysterious. Flights are crowded, people are cutthroat. I’m not surprised that the aisles were all taken upon check-in. When the website won’t let me select a seat, I always call up and ask a phone CSR to select it for me. That’s more reliable than the online seat-selection things anyway.

    So, to answer the question, the way to become more proactive is to pick up the phone as soon as you’ve made your booking online.

  2. Falconfire says:

    goes back to Airlines overbooking and the multitude of other things they do to screw the customer royally, then wonder why people refuse to fly anymore.

    I think its a interesting twist on what happened 9/11. Being forced to not fly caused a lot of people to re-evaluate flying in general. Its not because they dont want to fly anymore, or have a fear of it. Now its because people began to see how they dont have a need to fly, nor do they need to be screwed by airlines/US government just to get from point a to point b. Businesses learned to operate without the costly trips for little reason but face value, people learned that traveling to out of the way tourist traps isnt always as great as looking out your own backdoor for a nice vacation. Add the current fictional gas crisis created by the oil industry and you have all the makings of a doomsday scenario for those airlines who cant get their head out of their ass and change with the times.

    If airlines would take this example and others as lessons on how they can improve air travel, I dont think they would nearly be as in the red as they are.

  3. Smoking Pope says:

    Not sure if this would work, but if I was in his large shoes, I’d call ahead to the airline and claim a disability. Is being tall a disability? Most of the time no, but when flying, definitely yes.

    Anyway, maybe if he made it clear to them that his physical stature causes him pain if he doesn’t have an aisle seet then they might go the extra yard to accommodate him. Then again, it is the airline industry.

  4. TPIRman says:

    @Smoking Pope: They hear that all the time. Their standard response is: if the pain from restricted legroom is that debilitating to you, cough up the extra cash for a first-/business-class seat. Cold but true.

    Like I said above, calling ahead may be useful as a way to more effectively get your seat assignment into the system, but the “disability” excuse won’t help. It actually could hurt, since the CSR will have heard it a hundred times before and will not enjoy listening to your attempts at self-martyrdom.

  5. TedSez says:

    The same thing happened to me with an America West flight. When the boarding pass printed out, the seat selection I had made on Orbitz was no longer there. I asked an employee at the gate where it had gone, and she said that because the flight was so full she canceled all the seat selections!

    Is this common practice? It seems ridiculous.

  6. Gari N. Corp says:

    This 6’6″ commenter usually turns up 2 hours early and begs as politely as possible for an exit seat. I sometimes murmur as gently as I can about “blood pressure issues”, although I suspect that if they wanted to take me seriously on that point they could just stop me from flying. Policy varies – some airlines won’t let you select an exit seat online in case you’re too feeble to deal with a possible evacuation.

  7. thrillhouse says:

    Smoking Pope does have a point. I’ve seen this accomodated on Southwest flights (which by the way, I recommend sticking with whoever will work with you). I dunno how tall he was, but it doesn’t take much to be hunched over in those tin cans. Talk to the people at the counter and ask to pre-board. I’ve seen people pre-board for much less compelling reasons. This works as SW does not have assigned seats. Getting in an exit row, as Gari points out, will be your best bet – w/o spending extra cash on a fancy pants seat.

    good luck

  8. BigTDog says:

    Thanks for the input, all.


  9. mschlock says:

    I’m just puzzled how tall guys in aisle seats avoid getting rolled over by the drinks cart.

  10. ADM says:

    This seat-changing thing happened to me on two consecutive 5 hours flights last week (HI -> LAX -> NYC). When I checked in and noticed that the aisle seat I had requested (and “confirmed” online with Orbitz and United!) had been switched to a window seat, I talked to several different gate agents and got them changed. At LAX, I had to wait until all the unclaimed seats were cleared 30 minutes before scheduled departure (i.e., people didn’t show up for the flight) and wait in line behind everyone else waiting to talk to the gate agent. It took literally 20 minutes of standing there with other sighing, impatient people, and I was one of the last people to board the plane, but sure enough, I got my aisle seat.

    It is important to keep things in perspective — as others have noted, the seat charts on Orbitz make it pretty clear that they are just “requests,” so you might have to do a little extra at the gate or check-in counter to better ensure you get the seat you want.

    The thing about ALL the seats assignments on the flight getting cleared does seem weird to me, but I don’t fly that often.

  11. Elvisisdead says:

    @mschlock – We don’t. However, I know when the cart is coming, and gladly lean in a little bit to let it by.

    What’s an even bigger annoyance is when somebody in front of me leans their seat back. These days, the small amount of room that you are given is immediately taken up by the reclined seat back. First, I try to fly Midwest whenever I can, but failing that I try to get bulkhead/exit rows, but it’s not always possible. See cited seating FUBARS.

    What I did learn when I booked my flight for this weekend is that bulkhead/aisle seating is treated as “Premium”, by Continental at least, and isn’t available for a seat selection on a discounted ticket. That could be why it appears as unavailable.

  12. Mauvaise says:

    One thing to note for Southwest is that if you ask to pre-board, you are prohibited from sitting in an exit row (they even give you a little sheet with this information with your blue sleeve). It’s a fairly recent change (last year or so), but I’m sure in a case such as this they will be accommodating (I’ve found SW nothing but), but you might want to explain *why* you want to pre-board.

  13. PR Flack Brian says:

    RE: Elvisisdead – I had the same BS happen to me with Continental – I’m 6’3″ and try EVERY time I fly to get the exit row, only to see it occupied by 5’4″ whores with tote bags and little kids who frolick in the seats like it was Chuck E Cheese’s and spread marzipan all over the armrests. They give those seats to “preferred” customers.

    Also, on a random topcic, WHY can’t they make a special “baby” section in the back of the plane and have it cost a bit more to cover the costs of SOUNDPROOFING the bastard?

  14. Large says:

    I’m 6’7′, quite robust, and used to work for American…the absolute best way to get a good seat is scan the counter for a tall or large ticket or gate agent. 99% of the time they will empathize with your plight and give you a seat even if it requires moving someone around. Barring that, contact a CSR ahead of time and explain that you’re tall and would like an aisle seat (exit rows cannot be given out more than 24 hours before a flight, so don’t bother trying that route). If you want to be a bit underhanded, you can always tell them you have a knee injury and need to keep your leg stretched out.

    Also, bear in mind that this is one of the problems with dealing with Orbitz and Expedia. You are less likely to get the seat you want with them due to complex ticket allocation issues than you would be by purchasely directly through the airlines.

  15. Hawkins says:

    I no longer use Expedia and Orbitz, when I can get away with it. They just turn out to be full of shit too often.

    Get the ticket from the airline Web site. They’re much less likely to goof it up, and when there’s a problem, they’re more likely to be sympathetic when you say, “yes but YOUR WEB SITE sold me this…”

  16. Smoking Pope says:

    @ElvisIsDead: You know how I deal with thoughtless people who recline their seats? When I sense them start looking for the button (and for some reason I can always tell, they shift around a lot) I prop my knees against the back of their seat.

    This results in some fun, listening to them vainly grunting and struggling as they desperately try to recline the seat. The two times they’ve looked over the seat and figured it out, they asked, “Can you move your legs? I’m trying to recline my seat.” I responded with, “Well, if I do that, I won’t be able to use my laptop. You wouldn’t be thoughtless enough to try to keep a guy from earning a living just because you’d like to lean back by 3 degrees, would you?” End of problem.

    A friend of mine tried another approach once. When they reclined the seat he leaned over and said in his best retarded voice, “Could you put your seat up? You’re making me cry.” PC? No. Funny as hell? Yes.

  17. Smoking Pope says:

    Oh, and my boss once had a decidedly less subtle approach. Desperately trying to finish some work on his laptop before landing, his laptop got nudged off his tray when the guy in front of him reclined the seat. He two-hand shoved the back of the seat as hard as he could and yelled “FUCK YOU!” That worked too.